Monday, 28 January 2008

Death of a Language

The Guardian reports today on the death of Marie Smith Jones (above) in Alaska aged 89. Why is her death significant? Well, with her died her native language - Eyak. An indigenous tongue of southern Alaska, the language has no 'close linguistic relatives' and so with the death of its last speaker has no chance of any kind of revival. The event raises a whole number of questions and issues tied to language generally - most obviously concerning the impact of globalisation on local cultures. Indiginous languages are increasingly finding themselves 'extinct' and many more will be lost throughout the next century. But - is this a case of linguistic Darwinism (some languages survive because they are fitter than others) or, as Mark Abley in The Guardian suggests, a cultural disaster equivalent to the bombing of the Louvre? The issues are enormously complex but one can't help but feel that the world is a poorer place without Marie Smith Jones.

Useful for: Language Topics / Change

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

It's English Jim, but not as we know it.

Ever wondered what 'English' might have sounded like 1000 years ago? Well here is one interesting interpretation. Of course we can never know with any certainty how Anglo-Saxon would have really sounded. But we can guess. When I have played this clip to students here at CTK most have thought it to sound like German or Dutch, which given the Germanic roots of English is not surprising.

Useful for: Language Change

Taking Queen's English down under

The following is taken from today's Guardian travelogue. Written by Patrick Barkham, the piece offers an interesting insight into contemporary Australian slang - but of course, as is the way with slang, the terms may already be out of date.

Ever since a lunch when my Australian mate declared he could chew the leg off a skinny priest, I've realised that Australians are uniquely creative with the Queen's English.

Most Poms' hazy sense of the Australian vernacular stretches as far as strewth, dag or bonzer. But a competition by an online dictionary to find Australia's word of the year shows that the country is still chewing up English and spitting out something far more direct and interesting.

Have you always hated those tattoos hovering above the backside? Now you've got a name for them: arse antlers. Want a new euphemism for an obese person? Try salad dodger.

This kind of slang is not really surprising because Aussies have always excelled at insults, none more so than former prime minister Paul Keating, who liked to savage his parliamentary opponents as "gutless spivs" or "foul-mouthed grubs".

Most of the terms listed by the Macquarie Dictionary are gentler: tanorexics are people obsessed with sunbathing; Helengrad is the nickname for the New Zealand capital Wellington - implying it is dominated by their long-serving prime minister Helen Clark.

Many of Australia's 85 words of 2007, which you can vote for at the Macquarie Dictionary website, are typically dry observations about modern life, which apply across the western world. At work, we all suffer from password fatigue, having too many passwords to remember; infomania is that twitchy, distracted state brought on by constantly giving priority to the latest emails and text messages; pod slurping is the downloading of huge quantities of music or data onto an iPod or memory stick.

At home, you will find the floordrobe, an ironic term for that lazy kind of storage system which is actually a bedroom floor covered with discarded clothes; and Kippers, an acronym for adult children who refuse to leave home (Kids in Parents' Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings).

Some of these words are already gaining use around the world and may not even be uniquely Australian.

My friend who waxed lyrical about eating skinny priests and wrestling pigs in hallways has always worried that globalisation would herald the end of the Australian vernacular. He needn't be overly concerned, however. There are still plenty of new, uniquely Australian terms to play with - from toad juice, a liquid fertiliser made from crushed cane toads, to microgroms, those infuriatingly brilliant Aussie surfers who can't be more than 10 years old.

Useful for: Varieties of English / World Englishes